FRESNO, Calif. — GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Democratic rival Jerry Brown traded barbs over immigration policy and Whitman's illegal immigrant housekeeper during a heated debate that was aimed at California's growing Latino population.
Both candidates hoped to score points with the crucial voting bloc during Saturday's face-off, the first to air statewide on Spanish-language television. Whitman acknowledged early on that she cannot win the governor's race without Latino votes.
Whitman had planned to use the debate at California State University, Fresno to move on from a controversy that has dominated headlines this week after it was revealed she had an illegal immigrant housekeeper for nine years.
The billionaire former eBay chief executive, who has spent $119 million of her own money on the race, tried instead to focus on her campaign themes of creating jobs and improving the state's public school system.
But with so much attention on issues related to immigration policy, Whitman was forced to explain her conservative positions while Brown had many opportunities to bring up the housekeeper.
When the debate moderator asked Whitman about her treatment of the worker, she accused Brown's campaign of orchestrating the controversy and sacrificing the maid "on the altar of your political ambitions." Brown fired back that Whitman has not taken responsibility and is not fit to be governor.
"Don't run for governor if you can't stand up on your own two feet and say, 'Hey I made a mistake,'" Brown said in a moment fraught with tension as the two candidates, neck-and-neck in the polls, turned away from the audience and faced each other directly. "You have blamed her, blamed me, blamed the left, blamed the unions. But you don't take accountability."
Whitman's campaign has worked hard to win support among independents and Latinos, who are crucial to the campaign of any Republican running in a state in which Democrats hold a 13.4 percentage point edge among registered voters.
But Democrats hope to exploit the housekeeper controversy as a way to question Whitman's character. Whitman fired the woman in June 2009, immediately after she said she found out the housekeeper was in the country illegally.
She then refused to help when the woman asked for help pursuing legal residency. Whitman said the decision was the right one at the time.
She said she had no reason to believe the housekeeper, Nicky Diaz Santillan, was illegal, and had to act within the law.
"We hired Nicky because she had all the appropriate documents, we went through a hiring agency, and then in June of 2009 she came to me to tell me that she was here illegally and did not have the appropriate documents," she said. "I made the hardest decision I have almost made in my life, which was to let her go. ... So it broke my heart. It was incredibly difficult for me to do."
Brown said it was shabby for Whitman not to offer at least initial help to the housekeeper, whom Whitman has described as being like a member of her extended family.
"When someone works with you, you do have familial bonds and ties, and I think if that story is to be believed, I think Meg flunked the most fundamental test of all, and that is to treat people with respect and decency," he told reporters in a post-debate news conference.
Whitman also is addressing allegations from the housekeeper's attorney that she and her husband, a Stanford neurosurgeon, should have suspected the worker's status because of a Social Security Administration letter mailed to their home in 2003.
Gloria Allred, the housekeeper's attorney, is a longtime supporter of Democratic candidates. Whitman told reporters after the debate the controversy is a sideshow from the issues Californians want to focus on, such as jobs and education.
Brown and Whitman had several lengthy exchanges over high-profile immigration issues, including whether illegal immigrants already in the country should be able to seek citizenship and whether the government should crack down on employers who hire illegal workers. They also sparred over the DREAM Act, which would let U.S. high school graduates who were brought into the country illegally as children become legal residents after spending two years in college or the military.
"We need a better e-verify system, three strikes and you're out, you get fined, you lose your business license," Whitman said about her belief that employers need to be targeted. "If we do not hold employers accountable, we will never get our arms around this very challenging problem,"
"Ms. Whitman obviously didn't crack down on herself," he said. "This is a question of talking out of both sides of her mouth."
The candidates also faced a question about the DREAM Act from a woman who said she was a senior at the university and was an illegal immigrant. Without a pathway to citizenship, she won't be able to work legally after graduation, even though she was at the top of her class when she graduated from a California high school. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a state DREAM Act bill just days ago.
Brown said he would sign the law if it came to him as governor. Whitman opposes it.
"She wants to kick you out of the school because you are not documented, and that is wrong – morally and humanly," he told the woman.
Whitman said California citizens should have first crack at California's overcrowded colleges, which are under financial strain because of budget cuts.
"This is a very tough situation, but I don't think it's fair to the people who are here in California legally," she said. "I don't think we can carve out a group of illegal immigrants and get them a path to citizenship when we haven't sorted out control of our borders and getting our arms around illegal immigration."
Whitman reiterated her opposition to a path to citizenship and tried to shift blame for immigration problems to the federal government, saying the first priority should be securing the border with Mexico. Brown said he would treat all Californians equally "as God's children."
"You don't just bring in semi-serfs and say do our dirty work, and then we're finished with you like an orange and just throw it away. That's after you've squeezed it. That's not right," he said.
Whitman said later that her messages of job creation and improving K-12 schools are resonating with Latino voters, and she'll continue to focus on that.
"Without jobs, there is no future. Without keeping California's businesses here, there is no future," she said. "Every Latino family that I have run into says if we do not fix our education system there is no way forward, and so I am deeply committed to education."
Associated Press Writers Garance Burke and Samantha Young contributed to this report.